Two goals in the last four minutes saw Japan reduce the deficit but India’s superiority till then ensured a 4-2 win against the reigning Asian Games champion in the first real test for the Indians.
It was also a wake-up call for the World No. 3 side in its pursuit of only the fourth gold in the tournament in 17 attempts and a Paris Olympics direct qualification berth.
A goal in every quarter kept India ahead. That it was the better side was evident right from the beginning. The control, dominance and skills kept the team on top despite missed chances even as the Japanese defended stoutly, waiting for openings and a chance to hit back.
India kept possession, played attacking and entered the opposition circle frequently but failed to get the final touch in. Sukhjeet was unable to deflect twice in the first ten minutes, and then Harmanpreet’s flick went wide before Abhishek finally put India ahead in the 13th minute.
To its credit, Japan’s defence remained rock solid and error-free for most parts, and the eight penalty corners India earned were more a result of clever creation than mistakes from the opponents.
The times when Japan occasionally broke through for a shot at goal, the Indians were able to parry the attacks easily. A Mandeep attempt trickled past the goalline for the second goal, Amit Rohidas flicked home the third and Abhishek and Mandeep combined for the fourth goal. With five minutes to go, India was relaxed – a little too much, and Japan pounced on it.
“We did well in the first three quarters, we had due control on the game, we had a few chances that we did not finish, and that’s fine...then the last five minutes, they had nothing to lose, and they pushed, but we tried to play a little bit of [the] same game and got beaten,” coach Craig Fulton shrugged but refused to assess any further.
Vice-captain Hardik Singh was more forthcoming.
“I guess we were getting easy because we were 4-0 up, and we knew they were not going to score four goals. But we should have kept a clean sheet in hindsight. That’s what champion teams are all about. If they are winning by 4-0, they are keen to score another goal. That’s the mindset we need,” Hardik admitted after the game.
Next up will be Pakistan and that won’t be an easy game either, regardless of rankings.
“We are in a tournament, not a series against Pakistan. We are here for a bigger goal, that’s just one of the seven games that we want to play and do well in,” Fulton insisted.
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